Utility quilts are made from scraps of fabric sewn together to
create a warm coverlet. The quilt might include usable denim
from Grandpa’s worn overalls, or the sash from Grandma’s apron,
made from the sack originally used to hold flour or grain.
Perhaps there is fabric from school dresses, and plaid work
shirts and party clothes. Although the purpose of the quilt was
for warmth, the quilter usually cut the pieces to form a
pleasing pattern, using her creativity to bring beauty into her
home. And the finished quilt held memories of people and times
past, perhaps a history of a family through the years.
Our lives are like quilts. We inherited traits from our
ancestors, and learned life lessons from our family, friends,
and the communities in which we grew up. Sometimes the patterns
that emerge are not what we expected. But like the quilts, we
are held together by the love that surrounds us. The miracle of
the quilt, and of life, is that all the odd pieces go together
to make an object of beauty and durability which lasts and
When we started quilting several years ago, we never thought of
it as a social justice project. A friend of a member of the
church asked if we would meet once to make a few quilts for
HIV+/AIDS orphans in Ethiopia. June Colburn is in the audience
today, and she is a professional quilter and author who teaches
quilting across the country. She had found a book containing a
simple quilt pattern, perfect for a charity quilt, which you
could finish in an hour. And she had contacts in Addis Ababa who
could bring the quilts to an orphanage there. So a group of
women from our church, some with little or no sewing experience,
gathered together with donated fabric to test this pattern.
Well, of course one quilt took more than an hour to finish, but
we found that coming together was lots of fun, and we were
creating something useful for others. So we decided to meet the
following month, then we met every two weeks, and quickly we
began meeting every week.
Our Tuesdays together are a great example of team-work and
support. Many people who join us are not accomplished quilters,
but come with a willingness to learn new skills, and there is
always a place for them. The room is vibrant with activity and
laughter. It is common to have 15 – 20 people around the lunch
Besides church members, our group has attracted community
members who love to quilt, or are looking for a creative
opportunity to give back to the community. My mother, who is 102
years old, comes with her companion to set the table and put out
the pot luck lunch so that the quilters have more time to sew.
We have had women do their required community service hours with
us, and we have welcomed women who were in transition from a
shelter toward independent living.
Not all our regular quilters are women. One fellow happened to
be at church on a Tuesday, and was asked to help move tables and
sewing machines. Of course he was willing to work for a
home-cooked meal. He has since become our Treasurer, and now
owns his second sewing machine. Another fellow started to come
after the death of his wife. He plays wonderful cocktail lounge
music on our piano while we work, enjoys the companionship of
the quilters, and of course the home-cooked food.
Most of the fabric we use is donated, and our quilting program
is now well-known in the larger community. When we have room for
more fabric, we place requests in the Reader’s exchange of the
St. Petersburg Times. Local newspaper writers are often looking
for story ideas, and so there have been had several articles in
both the Pinellas and Pasco editions of the Sun Coast News. An
article, with photos of the children wrapped in their quilts,
appeared in the Quilter’s World magazine, giving us national
recognition. We have gotten to know owners of quilt shops, and
they give us donations of slightly damaged fabric or outdated
designs. It is not uncommon for someone to appear at our door
with several bags or boxes of fabric on a Tuesday. We are like
children at Christmas, opening our presents and exclaiming over
the surprises we find.
Any quilter worth her salt has a large stash of fabric waiting
to be used, and left-over quilt blocks and attempted projects.
My husband doesn’t know about many of the places around the
house where I have carved out an area for yet another box of
fabric. So we do get donations from the closets of people who
sew. But the origin of these fabric donations can be very
poignant. A daughter might come in telling of her mother’s
declining health or death, and find comfort that the remnants of
her mother’s hobby will find a useful purpose. One woman quilted
while she cared for her sick and homebound husband. When he
died, she gave away all her fabric, half-finished quilts and
supplies, not wanting to be reminded of the reasons she had
quilted in the first place.
Our group has expenses. Although most of the fabric is donated,
quilts also need batting, which we purchase. Batting is the
center layer of each quilt. We have chosen to use a product made
from about seven recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise
end up in landfills. So in a small way we are trying to protect
Mother Earth. We sell some quilts, primarily to members of the
congregation. Some quilts are given to charitable organizations
as fund raisers. And we do some commission work. A member of the
congregation asked us to repair a quilt that had been made for
her when she was born. She wanted to use it when her grandson
came to visit. And we are piecing together a signature quilt
inscribed with good wishes to a couple in our congregation that
has just gotten married.
Getting the quilts to Ethiopia has been a challenge. We don’t
mail them, as it is likely that they would be stolen in transit,
not getting to their intended destination. So all the quilts are
packed in suitcases and delivered personally to the orphanage.
We work with an international corporation that has offices in
Addis Ababa, and a commitment to support the communities in
which they work with charitable activities. June Colburn has
made several trips to Addis Ababa to deliver quilts. On her
first visit there, she thought that she would spread out 10
quilts, then invite 5 children in to choose the quilt they liked
the best. She quickly found out that these children had no
concept of either choice or ownership. She ended up choosing the
quilts for them. These children have no belongings, not even
clothes of their own. On the day they get clean clothes, they
line up by height. Clean outfits are arranged by size, and you
get the outfit that is on the top of the pile when you reach the
front of the line. So it is not unusual for a boy to wear a
dress if that is what is available. The pictures of these
smiling children wrapped in colorful quilts warms your heart.
And their drab bedrooms, that hold dozens of bunk beds closely
lined up together, became a riot of color, warmth and cheer. How
could you not want to keep sewing for these children?
But then, because we were linked with quilters across the
country, we started piling up more quilts then we could deliver.
Our group has finished more than a thousand quilts in the last 2
years. So our quilting group decided to give quilts to homeless
children in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The number of homeless people in Pinellas County has been
increasing in the last few years, in large part due to the
economic problems in this country. More families with children
are now homeless, along with an increased number of working
poor. According to the Pinellas County Coalition for the
Homeless, more than 33% of homeless adults work full or part
time. About 23% receive disability, veterans or retirement
benefits. According to the Homeless Count and Survey of 2009,
the number of homeless men, women and children in our county was
6,235, which is a 20% increase from 2007. 31% of this total, or
1,944, were children under the age of 18. There are only 559
emergency shelter beds for individuals and families. The state
of Florida has among the highest number of homeless people in
the country. The Shepherd Center is the community service agency
in Tarpon Springs. They provide hot meals every day of the year,
and only 10% of the people they feed are homeless. It is
difficult to believe that such a prosperous country as the
United States should not be able to adequately care for and
protect such a large number of our citizens.
Distributing our quilts locally can be a challenge, but
fortunately there are public and private social agencies that
welcome our donations. Both local counties have a program
through the Department of Education called Students in
Transition. Social workers in local schools identify homeless
children, and see that they have transportation to their school
of record so that their education is not interrupted to a great
degree. Other children in their classes may not even be aware
that these children are homeless, thus avoiding some of the
stigma that could arise. These social workers also work with
other community agencies to help stabilize these families. We
have given baby quilts to a home for unwed mothers. We have even
gone behind a Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, when the
homeless come out of the woods to search for food in the
We almost never see the children receiving their quilts. But we
hear the stories of how a little girl’s eyes light up when she
opens her quilt to see ballet dancers in pink tutus, telling the
giver that she has always wanted to learn to dance. Or the
mother with tears in her eyes, knowing that a stranger cared
enough to create this quilt for her child.
So does giving some of these children a bright colorful quilt
help them find a bed to sleep in at night? No, of course not. We
are not curing homelessness, but we are bringing to some of
these homeless children a gift made with love, and the assurance
that there are strangers in the world who care for them, and are
working on many levels to bring equality to all.
One of the key issues of our Unitarian Universalist Legislative
Ministry of Florida is working directly with legislators to urge
greater assistance with services for the homeless of our state.
So supporting this group sponsored by the Florida District is
one constructive way for all of us to work toward reducing the
number of homeless.
Our quilting group was nominated by our minister. Rev. Susanne
Nazian for the Jim Barrett Social Justice Award. Much to our
surprise, we received the award at the annual meeting of the Fl.
District. It is easy to get caught up in local church events,
and not get very involved in cluster, district, or national UUA
activities. And so I was not aware of the Social Justice Award,
and never thought we would qualify for it. Just last week one of
our regular members asked why our quilting was considered a
social justice project.
So let’s try to define social justice. Of course our UU
Principles include the inherent worth and dignity of every
person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and
the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice
A general definition of social justice is hard to arrive at and
even harder to implement. In essence, social justice is
concerned with equal justice, not just in the courts, but in all
aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal
rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on
the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even
According to the Catholic Church, the moral test of any society
is "how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the
most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. People
are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how
they affect the poor." And of course these ideas are based on
the teachings of Jesus, who was always concerned about the needs
of the poor, the sick, the members of society who were looked
down upon. Pope Leo 13, published the encyclical On the
Condition of the Working Classes in 1891. The Pope advocated
that the role of the State was to promote social justice through
the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on
social issues in order to teach correct social principles and
ensure class harmony.
Doug King, editor and WebWeaver, The Witherspoon Society of the
Presbyterian Church USA, wrote that Social justice provides the
foundation for a healthy community. It grows out of our sense
that each person — each created being — has value. Only as we
recognize the value and dignity of each person can we build a
healthy community, so it's a slow, painful process of learning
and growing. To help the process along we develop attitudes of
respect for one another. We also shape policies and patterns of
behavior to protect and enhance the worth of each person. We do
this by building governmental and economic structures,
educational and religious institutions, and all the other
systems that provide for health and social welfare. This justice
is not a goal that we'll ever reach, but a process, a struggle
in which we can be engaged through all the pain and all the joy.
The Florida District Social Justice award is named after Lt.
Col. James Barrett, a member of the UU congregation in
Pensacola, Fl. Jim Barrett served in the Air Force during WW II
and the Korean War. He was an active member of the National
organization for Women, and must have known that there were
risks to himself and his family as he lived his faith. Jim
Barrett was shot and killed July 29, 1994, at the age of 74,
while serving as a personal escort at a Pensacola women’s
clinic. A physician, John Baynard Britton, was also killed, and
June Barrett, Jim’s wife, was injured in the same incident. They
were shot by Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister. Mr. Hill
was the first person to be put to death in the US for
anti-abortion violence. He never showed any remorse for having
taken two lives.
None of us may ever be in a position to give up our lives
fighting for our beliefs, but there are many ways we can work
for social justice. Gestures of kindness, writing a check,
volunteering to support a cause, all qualify. For all you do to
work for equality and justice for all, I thank you.
Can you touch a prayer? Can you pull it close and feel its
comfort? You can if it’s
part of a quilt. We are connected to each other like the fabric
and stitches in these quilts. We will go out from here and we
Weaving our spirits together with the many colors of our love.
Go now in peace.